Unlike companies such as Sun, Microsoft and IBM, SAP came from a relatively narrow business category before it got into middleware. It based its business on applications, and not much else. There was no infrastructural component to the firm's portfolio, other than software that directly supported its application base. A few years ago, it bolstered that infrastructural element to turn itself into a more open company, but is still perceived as an applications firm with a middleware component.
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SAP used to be a proprietary system. SAP R/3 (which later became SAP ERP as the company extended its suite) was configured using the company's proprietary ABAP programming language, which was part of the SAP Basis development platform. Third-party integration required a lot of work, which is partly why the firm cut its teeth among blue chip clients in the 1990s.
In 2003, SAP unveiled NetWeaver, a platform designed to interoperate with Java and with Microsoft's .Net platform while also remaining backwards-compatible with ABAP. All of SAP's business applications migrated to the new platform, which made it easier for developers to alter the system, and to introduce third-party components. It also readied the company for services oriented architecture-based development, which as with many other firms has become a strategic direction for the German firm.
"SAP has the same architecture as all of the typical middleware vendors. It starts with a virtual machine, and has an application server that is fully Java certified and compliant," says SAP CTO Darren Crowder. The application server can operate using Java, or using ABAP. "That server underpins all of the application suites. When we acquire an application, it moves onto that platform."
SAP's software is structured into several architectural layers. It is a multi-channel system, meaning that the user interface can be displayed on everything from a standard SAP desktop GUI through to a mobile device or portal. It features a business process management (BPM) and application composition layer (for bolting together software application components and managing business rules), and an service oriented architecture (SOA) interoperability layer with a service bus for messaging between components.
NetWeaver 7.1 introduced bulk package messaging in the enterprise service bus, explains Crowder. "You can take a lot of messages, put them together into one payload, and pump them through a channel." It also features a federated ESB feature, so that you can relay messages between different buses.
NetWeaver also features a provisioning layer. The provisioning layer is where components such as business intelligence and master data management plug in, along with legacy applications, elements of the SAP Business Suite and third-party applications.
The company announced that it would bolster the BPM part of its NetWeaver offering in May when it announced Netweaver Business Process Management (formerly known as Project Galaxy). It included technology from Yasu Technologies, which it acquired in 2007. It represented a big step for the firm, according to Neil Ward-Dutton, research director at analyst MWD Advisors.
"It had some workflow technology before. It was a process layer, basically ripping the head off the applications and letting people thread user interfaces and process flow more independently into the underlying business logic. However, that was merely one piece of the BPM pie. People are looking for more sophisticated design and simulation tools. They want a more free-form approach that allows for more creative automation of processes," he says.
The BPM announcement is a step in the right direction, he says, but adds that it is taking the company a while to get it to market. The tools are not scheduled to be generally available as part of the NetWeaver Composition Environment enhancement package v1 until early in 2009.
SAP's openness with NetWeaver leaves questions for Ward-Dutton. "Two questions are firstly whether its middleware story is about more than SAP, or whether it is purely about SAP's own environment. And whether it also has ambitions to be a middleware vendor even with customers who do not have SAP application investments," he says. The first is true, he argues the second, not so much. But with Project Galaxy, he says that the company is eager to be the software backbone for customers.
2003: Launches NetWeaver.
2004: Announces that all its products will be Enterprise Services Architecture compliant by 2007.
SAP and Microsoft announce that they had considered a merger, but broke off the talks.
2005: Announces Project Galaxy.
2007: SAP buys business intelligence vendor business objects for €4.8bn.
Purchases business analytics vendor Pilot Software.
Japanese global trading company Mitsui used SAP NetWeaver to support MICAN, an initiative to reorganise company-wide business processes using a shared service centre.
Californian home builder John Laing Homes based an upgrade from its legacy enterprise resource planning system on SAP Netweaver, along with the SAP ERP application and SAP for Engineering, Construction and Operations.
Neil Ward-Dutton on SAP strengths and weaknesses:
Very strong enterprise credentials in business leadership circles.
Broad range of functionality in the SAP stack.
Typically slower to market with new capabilities than other leading middleware vendors due to internal "build, not buy" philosophy.
Adequate, but not market-leading, functionality in most middleware areas. Works best when adding value to SAP applications, rather than as an independent middleware offering in its own right.